It’s OK to Be Sexy AND Happy

The new and always famous Sports Illustrated (SI) annual “swimsuit edition” arrived in mailboxes and on newsstands this week, and there’s been some discussion that the women are showing more skin, and less bathing suit, than ever.

Swimsuit 2005

Swimsuit 2005

Here’s my question: The SI swimsuit models are universally beautiful, young, healthy and, of course, they have fabulous bodies. One almost wonders what they have to be so grumpy about. They are not trying to look grumpy, of course. But they are typically wearing these rather brooding, sulky, sometimes ill-tempered looks because it’s supposedly “sexy.” I call those looks “the little nasty pouts.” The sort of seductive, tempting, sullen look that typically goes with overtly sexual poses of young women in magazines.

I remember years ago, my son, now 10, was glancing at a cover model on a Cosmopolitan magazine in a grocery store. (Cosmo has perfected “the little nasty pout” on its cover.) In an offhand manner, I said, “That girl would be really pretty if she just smiled.” And then something like “Honey, the mark of truly beautiful woman is always whether or not she has a big smile.” (I think the same can be said for men.) Years later, that comment has stuck with him. And more and more I see I was right.

I think the human body is beautiful and it should be appreciated. That’s why it seems to me we have to be careful about declaring some things “always modest” (print dresses) and some things “always scandalous” (the view that some folks might have about, say, summer halter tops).

So much of what we consider appropriate has to do with the changing or different standards of the culture we live in – think Riyadh vs. Los Angeles – AND with what the woman herself, or man himself, is trying to convey.

A tart (I love that expression) in a long flowered dress can, conceivably, be far more sexually provocative than a virtuous woman in a halter top. Often the issue is: What is she trying to communicate? That’s where I have a problem with recent swimsuit editions of SI. It’s not that it features gorgeous women in bathing suits. It’s what these women are conveying. More and more, it seems to me, these women are losing the true beauty of their humanity as they become little more than objects.

I researched past swimsuit editions of SI. What I found is that, decades ago, supermodels like Cheryl Tiegs and Christy Brinkley who appeared in the magazine exuded sex appeal (i.e., “I am a feminine woman and I am gorgeous”) but not dark sexual allure. The difference wasn’t just their usually more modest poses and swimsuits (and, actually, Tiegs has a famous photo where she’s showing quite a bit) _ it was that, most interestingly, they typically had big smiles. Smiles that indicated warmth, individuality, openness, happiness and humanity.

Whatever one thinks of how much skin these women were showing, however much men may have desired them – these women were people! In contrast, today’s SI models are not only far more scantily clad, but they far more often wear expressions that scream “dark,” “illicit,” “secret,” “forbidden,” “anonymous” and, so most of all, “I’m a beautiful object, not a person.”

I’m not imagining this. Though it’s a different context, why do runway models in fashion shows almost always wear the “pout” and not a smile? Because the entire role of those girls is to be walking sales mannequins – NOT individual people.

If they smiled it would change everything.

I picked up a recent Victoria’s Secret catalog – talk about gorgeous women.

Well, inevitably, the sexier and more provocative the pose, the nastier the expression. The brighter and bigger the smiles (and several of the girls wore them), the more modest the pose and the dress. And, the more bright and personable and human the girls seemed. In fact, it appears it would be physically difficult to do a really sexually provocative pose – and wear a big open smile.

Look, Sports Illustrated, the men who love that issue, the men who make the money from it and the women who pose for it can do whatever they want, of course. SI is hardly the core of any problem, anyway. What I’m describing is only a symptom of the increasing coarsening of our culture, and the ever-present trend in many quarters to objectify women in particular and sexuality in general.

I think it’s a shame. Not because sexuality is bad, but just the opposite: It’s most beautiful, most connected, most meaningful, most delightful, when it’s most human.

And so, I’m glad my son (and my daughters, too) think that the mark of a woman’s physical beauty is best determined by whether or not she wears a big smile.

(Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by e-mail at letterstohart(at)